Maaz Sheikh has steered StarzPlay astutely making it one of the leading OTT streaming services in the region. Five years ago, StarzPlay jumped into the ring with global giants such as Netflix and regional powerhouse OSN, “we flew under the radar for the first three years, and that was probably a good thing”, says Sheikh, who co-founded StarzPlay. Today the Dubai-based start-up has made competitors take notice and has earned the right to enjoy a strong reputation in the market.
Sheikh won the coveted Broadcast Executive of the Year title at the Digital Studio Awards, which was held virtually for the first time in its 16-year history. Catching up with Digital Studio over a Zoom call, Sheikh shared his delight on winning the award, and revealed more about the company’s changing fortunes.
“I’ve been part of the process a few times over the years. This time around I’m proud to receive the prize. I keep looking at the past winners and I know I’m in the company of special people,” Sheikh tells Digital Studio, barely able to control his joy.
Over the last few months StarzPlay stepped up its operations from being a licensor of content produced by other studios to producing its own shows. This was a major step-up for the company as just a few months ago Sheikh was circumspect to get into producing originals.
So what changed? “Getting the timing right is critical with original content. Doing it too early could lead to burning through capital that you don’t necessarily have, you do it too late and you miss the opportunity of extra growth,” he explains.
The company, Sheikh says, now had the right amount of data and history that helped in making the decision, this is the first part of the “puzzle” that helped compound the decision that this was the right time to get into producing originals.
Sheikh says: “As we approached the five-year anniversary and billions of minutes of consumption during this time [a pattern began to emerge]. We had tested several Arabic formats and hosted plenty of Arabic content from different parts of the Arab world (Egyptian, Syrian, Khaleeji). Based on all the data, while becoming financially more stable, we got more confident that this was our time to do it [get into original productions].”
Additionally, production houses and its talents have had a shift in mindset to cater to streaming platforms. Public broadcasters have held the ship for the last 20-30 years in the Gulf and wider Middle East.
“Over these last few years, we noticed that the industry was changing and evolving where the script writers, cameramen, directors and producers were all changing their mind set towards OTT streaming and premium experience that could connect their content to Arab youth,” he adds.
BaghdadCentral, Image Nation and Hollywood
On February 12, 2020, StarzPlay’s first original joint production BaghdadCentral aired on its streaming platform. The six-part mini-series, quickly garnered international acclaim from film critics around the world, is set amidst the chaos of American-occupied Baghdad in 2003.
Sheikh believes that the Middle East audience’ appetite is geared towards Hollywood-style productions. He doesn’t propagate replicating story lines but wants to offer Arab audiences the same level of production quality that the west has been synonymous with.
He notes: “Baghdad Central is a gritty Hollywood style crime drama (themed circa 2004-2005 in Baghdad) but it’s still true to the struggles and values of what goes on in the wider society here. There are lessons to be learnt but our goal is to create content that will work here and resonate with our audiences.”
In the past, Sheikh once famously declared an “Arab version of Game of Thrones is unnecessary”. Sheikh sheds more light on the spirit behind the analogy.
“We live in a region that is steeped in cultural value, traditions and sensitivity around watching content with your family members. We can’t accept shows that work well in other parts of the world will work for regional families and societies. Of course I’m aware that things are changing with social media and the internet but I still think we need to cater keeping regional sensitivities in mind,” he explains.
Baghdad Central combines the best of Arab and Hollywood talent. The lead actor and his two daughters are Arab stars, whereas the lead support is Corey Stoll (House of Cards). The show was shot in Morocco with support from plenty of Hollywood producers and directors.
“This was a safe formula for us which reflected in viewership numbers, as BaghdadCentral climbed the charts to become one of our top five shows within two weeks of its release,” Sheikh reveals.
Another StarzPlay original is in the pipeline. In December 2019, the SVOD service provider signed a partnership with Image Nation Abu Dhabi to produce the first Gulf original series from the UAE. The show, that is yet to be named, was scheduled to swing into production in October this year, but that has been delayed by a few months due to the Coronavirus pandemic (see box out).
StarzPlay has over one million subscribers and is said to be installed in more than six million devices. Those numbers jumped through the roof over the last few months at the height of the lockdown (more on that later). StarzPlay has partnered with 24 telecommunication operators and has a presence in 20 countries across the Middle East and Pakistan.
When it comes to growth — Sheikh says that the company hasn’t left any stone unturned — from telco partnerships to long-standing relationships with Hollywood studios. Cognizant that credit card payments are still not as prominent in the wider Middle East, partnerships with telcos have helped take StarzPlay’s content to new corners.
He says: “In countries like the UAE credit card penetration is extremely high. But in Egypt and Morocco, for instance, credit card penetration is less than 5%. Our service needs to appeal to millions of audiences across the region. This is where we believe that allowing customers to sign up and pay through their fixed line or mobile bills makes it alluring as a service.
“Over the last five years we have got 24 different telecom partners in the MENA region, and Pakistan. That has been our clear differentiator when it comes to reach. Partnerships add to our credibility as well, one might not associate StarzPlay’s name with being Netflix, but it comforts people to see StarzPlay besides Saudi Telecom or Maroc Telecom for instance.”
In addition, the SVOD service also launched in KSA with Saudi Telecom’s Jawwy TV. “Rather than competing with them we are part of that experience. Similar sort of thing with Etisalat’s new TV service Switch, we are part of that as well.”
Over the course of 2020, StarzPlay is looking to expand its reach launching with more partners in the MENA region “particularly in Tunis, Egypt and Lebanon”.
Reaching all those markets would mean little if StarzPlay didn’t have the arsenal of content to appeal to its viewers. That’s where partnerships with studios have been the stand-out ingredient of its success.
Back in the day big studios were wary of betting on a start-up, the stakes were higher given they had exiting relationships in place with local broadcasters in the region.
“We are fortunate that Disney, Warner Bros, Sony and MGM bet on us from the outset. These partnerships have been the cornerstone for us and we are going to continue to build and grow them. As we established ourselves in the market and gained credibility, we brought on Universal as one of our key content partners,” Sheikh reveals. StarzPlay also recently signed a long term partnership with Warner Bros.
Some studios have launched their own service in the US, or plan on launching SVOD services of their own. Sheikh says he wants those service providers to consider StarzPlay as a successful platform regionally.
“We want them to have confidence that partnering with us is a good thing. And they wouldn’t need to launch their own direct to consumer service in this part of the world. They rather leave it to platforms such as OSN and us, and have the market share battle in US and Europe,” he says.
Disney+, for instance, launched its service via local partners in the region choosing not to launch it as a standalone offering. Disney + shows have been licensed to OSN but at the same time the entire Star Wars movie collection is available on StarzPlay. It’s the same with Warner Bros., StarzPlay viewers have access to the world of DC Comics — Flash, Supergirl and Batwoman to name a few.
“Disney also did a Ramadan special with us — where every day of the Holy Month one of its films were available to watch dubbed in Arabic. So movies such as Frozen were available to our audiences, dubbed in Arabic with Arabic songs.
99.99% of StarzPlay’s revenue is generated via its subscriptions, half of it comes from its partnerships with telecom operators and the other half via online payments, Sheikh says. “Quality of content and its reach are two major facets of our company’s business model,” he says.
According to IHS Markit Pay TV & Online Video Report — MENA — 2019 StarzPlay has 29% of the SVOD market share. This puts it at the top spot in terms of number of subscriptions, for the second year running. Sheikh accepts the accolades modestly and approaches the subject of market share with astute business acumen.
He says: “Certain studies put us at the number one spot but that could leave you with a false sense of security because we compete with global juggernauts like Netflix or regional powerhouse OSN. To co-exist with these leaders in their own right we need to carve out our own space. We have to evolve to be successful in the future and part of that evolution is to create youth focused Arabic content that will resonate with the people of this region.”
Sheikh envisages StarzPlay becoming a platform for other brands and studios. During Ramadan StarzPlay’s platform launched Discovery’s Fatafeat home cooking content on our platform.
“In addition, Discovery’s DPlay will also be available as an add-on package on StarzPlay. It’s about evolving to offer a variety of content services in a pay as you go format, customising a viewer’s suite of services and paying only if they want to avail of those services. This sets us apart from other players because we are not just an SVOD platform anymore but a distribution platform as well,” he notes.
Looking ahead, Sheikh believes that there is plenty of all players given the size of the region. “This isn’t a region where the winner will take all, it’s not that sort of market. We are blessed to serve the region that has 400 million people, we expect anywhere from 8 million to 10 million subscriptions from that. There’s room for two to three [major] player — we ought to be one of them.”